How To Appeal To Nathan Albright: A Case Study In Logos, Ethos, And Pathos

As someone who reads many books and is generally critical about much of what I encounter, I often wonder about what grounds something would appeal to me.  According to the rhetorical classifications of the Greeks [1], there are three basic grounds by which we appeal to someone.  In a logos appeal, we seek to appeal to someone through reasoned arguments, convincing them that our view is the most rational.  In an ethos appeal, we present ourselves as someone who is trustworthy and decent and honorable, and therefore worthy of respect as a person.  Lastly, in a pathetic appeal, we seek to motivate someone else to pity on our behalf.  By and large I tend to find that most pathetic appeals leave me cold where there are no other elements besides pity that I am expected to latch on to, but perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of the story.

Being someone who fancies himself to be a generally reasonable and rational person, it is fairly easy for a strong logos appeal to win my approval.  Let us take for example the case of Fredèric Basitat, the noted French libertarian economic philosopher of the mid-19th century.  During my teenage years I read his classic work “The Law,” and more recently I re-read that book and read several of his other volumes, and one thing that marks his works is their strong attention to logos.  Whatever you know or think about Bastiat as a person–and my thoughts of his personal dignity and honor are high–he knew how to craft an unassailable argument in favor of free trade that was hostile to imperialism, protectionism, and socialism.  His firm understanding of the difference between that which is seen and the unseen and hidden hand of providence as well as cause and effect makes his work quite excellent to read.  I feel the same way, it should be noted, about Adam Smith, especially in the latter volumes of his masterpiece The Wealth of Nations.  When someone shows a soundness of thinking, an awareness of repercussions and context, and a thorough attention to often neglected details that is logically consistent, my favor is not hard to reach.  By and large, I view a logical appeal as a rather winsome one, although I should note that there are a great many people who think of their appeals as logical when they are not, because they are based on flawed premises that are unadmitted and unexamined.  Generally, my favor is not won over when someone fancies themselves a logical debater when they are not, and that is unfortunately all too often.  Worldview errors in particular detract a great deal from my enjoyment of someone’s writing and argumentation.

Even so, there are ways in which I can be won over by an acceptance of a person even if I do not accept their position or their arguments.  This is an example of an appeal to ethos.  I could believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream of equality between the ethnicities of the United States even if I considered his expressions to that effect largely plagiarized from a previous black speaker and even if I found his personal life and even ethics to be questionable concerning his proclivities towards intellectual theft.  This is perhaps as charitable as I am willing to be in such matters.  On a more positive note, I recently finished a book by a Catholic writer named John Zmirak, and while I am by no means a friend of Catholicism or accepting of his arguments about tradition and magisterium and rules of faith or anything of that matter,  I was won over by his appeal to ethos, by his discussion of himself and others of his kind as being principled people with whom I find a great deal of agreement as well as mutual understanding as beleaguered traditionalists who have had to wrestle with corrupt authoritarian religious authorities.  I certainly have dealt with more than my quota of corrupt religious authorities during the course of my life, and on those grounds I was won over by the ethical value of the writer’s opinion, so that even if I did not consider myself favorite to Catholicism as a whole, I certainly did find myself to feel positively about the author and those within Catholicism who feel and think as he does concerning matters of common moral and political interest.  And sometimes, that is enough.

However, I do not generally find appeals to pathos to be very successful, nor would I recommend this avenue for someone who wishes to win my approval.  This became particularly noticeable to me (and no doubt to many others as well) when I engaged in a discussion with some friends of mine concerning the issue of illegal immigration.  Throughout the week a great many people were trying to encourage in me a feeling of compassion towards people who had been separated from their families on account of their violation of immigration laws.  Such people said that Jesus would not cruelly demand the enforcement of such laws and looked forward to a time when there would be no such thing as illegal immigration in the world to come.  On the contrary, I pointed out that God has always taken borders seriously [2].  On the contrary, I found the appeals to logos and ethos on the part of those who pointed that criminals repeatedly find themselves separated from their families on this side of the border, so why should it be any different when one breaks immigration laws as opposed to any other kind of laws.  Those who, like me, are highly wary and suspicious of appeals to our pathos found ourselves unmoved by the attempt of the mainstream media to manufacture artificial outrage about the enforcement of laws that have languished without proper enforcement for far too long.

What can we learn from this?  If we separate appeals based on appeals to reason/logic, appeals to the character of the person speaking, and tugs on our heartstrings, I am far less amenable to those who attempt to move me emotionally than those who can demonstrate a character I can identify with or an argument I find convincing.  No doubt other people find different appeals more successful than others.  No doubt there are many people who are far more sympathetic than I am.  There are people whose character would be winning to me who would be quite offensive and irritating to others.  There are also arguments I find wanting that others would find convincing because others would accept the premises of the people making those arguments where I do not.  We live in a world of increasing disagreements and decreasing abilities to understand where we and others are coming from, or why we have such disagreements as we do.  It would be good for us from time to time to examine ourselves to better understand where it is that we can be convinced either to agree with someone’s opinion or to view them as someone who is on our side or someone we can approve of, and what arguments are entirely useless for winning our favor and assent?  After all, we live in a world where people are continually trying to sell us on something, and it is worthwhile for us to know on what grounds we can be sold arguments or anything else, because it is on those grounds where we will find ourselves most influenced by the marketplace of goods and ideas around us.

[1] See, for example:

[2] To wit, when God visited Moses on Mt. Sinai he warned the children of Israel on pain of death not to touch the mountain he landed on.  Likewise, the children of Israel were forbidden, again on pain of death, not to touch the Ark of the Covenant under any circumstances, and God was not particularly moved by pathetic appeals or excuses by those who failed to respect the borders between the holy and the profane.  God takes boundaries seriously, and so should we.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to How To Appeal To Nathan Albright: A Case Study In Logos, Ethos, And Pathos

  1. Pingback: Going Down To Liverpool To Do Nothing | Edge Induced Cohesion

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